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Monday, January 28, 2013

The Uses of History

Quinte Hotel - home of Gatsby's Lounge at one time
I'm writing a piece for the local historical society newsletter, about the Quinte Hotel, which was lost to fire on December 21. I'm reading contemporary descriptions of the hotel in the splendid language of the newspaper accounts of 1895 and 1908. In 1908 the "magnificent hostelry" was reopened after a disastrous 1905 fire, to general approval: "the princely Quinte, after its baptism of fire has risen from its ashes more magnificent than ever" (Daily Intelligencer, February 28, 1908).

 As the Quinte Hotel moved into the mid/late century it began to suffer some growing pains. By that time, it had definitely lost its status as the most sumptuously appointed hostelry between Toronto and Montreal, as it had once been touted.

Lots of local folk have memories of the hotel as it began to show signs of wear - among the many diversions on offer over those decades were the exotic dancers of Gatsby's Lounge. Al memorialized Gatsby's and the endowments and "nimble performances" of the ladies there in 'The Uses of History', linking their charms with the courtesans of the c16 Hindu kingdom of Vijayanagar in a way we had come to expect of him. Few but Purdy would be reminded of the Venus of Willendorf while admiring (in a detached manner, of course) a brunette stripper's "prodigious measurements."
Corby Library nearby (once the domain of Angus Mowat)

"Leaving the dry library
and feeling a need for wetness
I settle myself in the Gatsby Lounge
at the nearby Quinte to partake same
and quaff a flagon or six
My books are laid out on the table
beside beer and ready for serious study"...

Al's descriptions of the talents of the ladies, and his travels back and forth in time in their contemplation can be enjoyed in their entirety in the poem 'The Uses of History', published in Piling Blood (1984) and reissued in Beyond Remembering (2000).

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Country Snowplow

I cannot imagine how difficult it was for Al and Eurithe to live those first few desperate winters at the A-frame. Snowbound, chopping ice to get lake water, reading in the light of oil lamps, heat!!

And back in the '50's we had real winter. Elemental....And lots of snow.
Nevertheless it was with mixed emotions that Al greeted the arrival of the snowplow...the 'scarifer' as our dad called it (as a kid I always thought he was saying' scare-fire'.) My dad who remembered when each farmer was responsible for clearing the section of road in front of his property.

Comes lumbering around the stalled
Quaternary glaciers to deliver his ancient
                                   thundering manifesto
modified to suit the times-
roaming the bedclothes of earth-..."

Al goes on (I think) to reveal the domestic scene, a wife who expects someone (?) to shovel her out .
She wondering "is he up to this?"
He wondering "am I up to this?"

                                      " To rescue 
the perishing
                     married woman expecting
 strength from snowshovel husband
he knowing and searching the shapes of self
to seize the disparate ghost that strength is..."

And this was important dialogue, for in those days, we had real winter.
little brother and me at the farm

Lines from 'Country Snowplow', The Cariboo Horses (1965)

Friday, January 25, 2013

Time travel

Time travel.
I'm always on about it in my architecture history blog.
Perhaps everyone does it.
I know Al Purdy did it.

These lines are from 'Inside the Mill', a poem which appears in many collections, but which I am reading tonight in  Sundance at Dusk (1976)

Although this building is not Roblin's Mill (it's a falling-down house near Salmon Point), it helps me be in touch with the lines in the poem.

Of his early explorations of the ruined mill in the village of Ameliasburgh, and the way the place put him into contact with those gone before, Al said:

"When you cross the doorway you feel them
when you cross the places they've been
there's a flutter of time in your heartbeat
of time going backward and forward
if you feel it and perhaps you don't
but it's voyaging backward and forward
on a gate in the sea of your mind"...

Unfortunately, one is hard-pressed to commune with the mill and those who peopled it, for the mill was uprooted in 1963 and reassembled for the tourists at Black Creek Pioneer Village. The mill appears often in Purdy's work, more real somehow in his words than as the historical artifact it became. 

At the bend in A'burg's main street, where once stood Owen Roblin's mill and his proud house opposite, is a plaque erected by the 7th Town Historical Society, who doubtless felt the loss keenly.

snake fences

"As much as any place in the world
I claim this snake fence village
of A-burg as part of myself
its dusty roads and old houses
even the garbage dump..."

from 'Gateway' by Al Purdy
in Sundance at Dusk, p.110

 The snake rail or zig-zag fence appears often in the work of Al Purdy. Although these examples are from South Marysburgh township, they are beautiful and evocative.

They are early fences made when there was a surfeit of long cedar rails and men to do the work,  and a shortage of wire or nails which appear in later fence types. The fence was practical; it could be unpiled and moved as cleared fields expanded, or needs changed.

I have always loved snake fences. Like old buildings and unspoiled natural places, they invite us to think about how things used to be done, and who used to do them..they are a portal to another time.

Compare these pastures to today's monster fields, stripped of fence rows and their small nature preserves. I hate the violence of all that change to accommodate industrial farming machinery and practices.

Along Gibson's Road, at the top of the A-frame property, an Ameliasburgh snake fence shelters under pines and cedars.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

'Wait for me dammit'

I am enjoying yet another collection of Al's poetry, 'The More Easily Kept Illusions-The Poetry of Al Purdy,' published by Wilfred Laurier University Press, in 1986.

I like some of the things Robert Budde says about Al's voice, and the accessibility of much of his work.
I was thinking about the choices the editor made for the collection
when I got side-lined, not for the first time, by 'The Horsemen of Agawa.'
"I have to abandon my beer
and use both hands for safety" 

It was like having a camp-fire conversation with other travellers - 'Did you get to the Agawa rocks yet, gotta go tomorrow' stuff.
Kind of accessible.
But better.
Because of the way Al shared the story and the places he took it.

"We clamber down rocks as unsteady as children
reach slanting stone ledges under the hundred-foot walls..."

"The painted horseman rides over four moons (or suns) on his trail
whose meaning must be a four day journey somewhere
the red iron oxide faded from Lake Superior storms
and maybe two hundred years since the Ojibway artist stood there
balanced above the water like us...."

We're not meant to photograph, I think
But I cannot see the power has diminished in any way

I love reading those words describing a place, and thoughts, that we also experienced when we made the pilgrimage.

But what I appreciate most about this poem
is what it says about Eurithe, and Al,
and what he felt about her.

..."But I mistrust the mind-quality that tempts me
to embroider and exaggerate things
                                    I just watch my wife's face
she is quiet as she generally is because I do most of the talking
it is forty years old and has felt the pain of children
the pettiness of day-to-day living and getting thousands of meals
but standing on the rock face of Lake Superior
it is not lessened in any way
with a stillness of depth that reaches where I can't follow
all other thoughts laid aside in her brain
on her face I see the Ojibway horseman painting the rock with red fingers
and he speaks to her as I could not
in pictures without handles of words
into feeling into being here by direct transmission
from the stranded Ojibway horseman
and I change it all back into words again for that's the best I can do..."

Read to the end.

(selected lines from The Horseman of Agawa)

Friday, January 18, 2013

At the Quinte Hotel Quinte

Quinte Hotel, Belleville, December 21, 2012
The geographical area encompassing Belleville, Trenton and Prince Edward County is often called the Quinte area...due in no small part to the presence of the Bay of Quinte. A glance through the local phone book yields 150 Quinte businesses and services from Quinte Air Supply to Quinte Winery.

 So I suppose it's no surprise that the area has, or rather, had, two Quinte Hotels. Had, because in the last two months of 2012, we lost both of them to fire.

I told the story of the December 21 loss of the Belleville Quinte Hotel in this post , and again here in my architecture history blog 'ancestralroofs'.

Time will tell what will become of the one undistinguished wing which remains, the five bays to the left in the photo above. All the other walls shown here- which included everything of any architectural distinction - have been pulled down in the course of the fire marshal's investigation.
In one of his most famous poems, Al Purdy writes:
"I am drinking
I am drinking beer with yellow flowers
in underground sunlight
and you can see that I am a sensitive man"...

We all recognize those lines.
But later in the poem he goes on:

"So he says to me 'Come on'
So I Come On...
& knock the shit outa him & sit on him
(he is just a little guy)
and say reprovingly
'Violence will get you nowhere this time chum
Now you take me
I am a sensitive man
and would you believe I write poems?'"

(from At The Quinte Hotel, in Poems for All the Annettes, 1968)

So finally, I have it on good authority. After serious scholarship by the erudite Eric Lorenzen of Trenton High and several associates of the indomitable Ms. Jean Baird, it has been established that this Al Purdy poem immortalized the Quinte Hotel in spite of other reports, including that of Al's own Eurithe, who recalls the inspiration being the Belleville establishment, officially and historically called Hotel Quinte (sounds more splendid, like the hotel itself was, in the beginning. Before its own basement beer parlour days.) 

So the discussion continues, like those rambling debates over tables filled with glasses of beer. There is  incontrovertible evidence supporting the opinion that the poem was written about the Trenton hotel. Al is said to have told people that. And Al, by all accounts, knew his bars... and his beer.

Sherwood Forest Inn (formerly Quinte Hotel), Trenton
To the right is/was Trenton's Quinte Hotel  (aka The Sherwood Forest Inn). Not a lovely spot, by all accounts, in Al's day, or more recently. Suggest we're all better off just reading the poem.

 Quinte Hotel/Hotel Quinte? Quinte Hotel Quinte. Perhaps the name stands in for all beer parlours, everywhere?

 Everybar. Al was a poet after all.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

True North

 The death of Kenojuak Ashevak on January 8 recalled a time in the early 60's when southern Canadians were just becoming aware of Inuit drawing, carving and printmaking...something so 'foreign' to most of us steeped in the European art tradition not long since beaten back by our own Group of Seven.  James Houston created a graphic arts collective in Cape Dorset, which drew artists like Kenojuak. These images became household-familiar. Her enchanted owl stonecut of 1960 later became a stamp. I remember introducing my parents to Pitseolak's Cape Dorset prints on a calendar in the mid-60's. Even Ookpik, the little stuffed snowy owl became something we were proud to call 'ours' - we were Canadians with a true North.

Interestingly, The Cape Dorset workshop was begun in 1957, the year Al and Eurithe Purdy built their A-frame.

In 1965 Al received a Canada Council grant and travelled to Baffin Island on a writing journey. The result of this trip was the 1967 work North of Summer.

"Going thru cases and cases
of Eskimo sculpture
returned from Frobisher
because they said it wasn't
good enough for sale to
T.Eaton Co.Ltd.
Getting itchy excelsior packing
inside my shirt and searching
for one good carving
one piece that says "I AM"
to keep a southern promise.."

(excerpt from 'The Sculptors' in North of Summer, 1967)

At the A-frame are two small carvings that Al brought back with him on his big trip to the north in 1965. One is a ptarmigan, the other a mother and child, primitive style.

The North stays with people.
Al brought it back with him to the country south of Belleville.
I love the little poem with which he opens the book.

"On the country road these spring days
odd things happen
brown men in mukluks climb
                           the snake fences
with Norris Whitney's sheep
near Ameliasburg
and I'm afraid to mention it
at the village store"

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Ever green

Al Purdy lived his life in public.
His poetry and prose are so very personal.
It seems almost voyeuristic to have access to such intimate times ... his despair, his failures, his childhood struggles, quarrels, embarrassments, pain, loss.
As a 'local' I often get to follow Al's footsteps.

Last Friday, in a lovely garden cemetery on a hill overlooking Trenton and my husband's shop, I found the tombstone of Al's parents.

At home, in 'Poems for All the Annettes', a link  more personal somehow because of Al's signature in my copy, I reread his two poems about Evergreen Cemetery, on Stockdale Road.

 I recall all the awkwardness of standing in a graveyard after relatives' funerals - trying to connect my self with real things in this unreal convention for dealing with death. The presence of natural things - trees, squirrels and birds conducting daily business, oblivious to all the solemnity - helped.

I think it must have grounded Purdy amid the tide of emotions surrounding his mother's death.

"Me standing here in death's
ceded town
                 in full summer
the dead down there unfreezing comfortably
the cold miserable rain untouching them-
outnumbering all to hell the last newcomers:
1 human, 2 chipmunks, some squirrels..."

Mount Evergreen Cemetery is a good place for 'a think'

From Evergreen Cemetery, 'Poems for All the Annettes', page 104

Tarnation Big Rock

In my home county of Prince Edward and the areas nearby, an Al Purdy literary pilgrimage is the stuff of everyday comings and goings.

On a particularly lovely day last week, I hiked a local conservation area to visit the province's largest glacial erratic. This one million kilo rock measuring 6 metres in height really defies description. It is some sort of elemental being, with its own ecosystem of ferns and even tiny trees surviving on its elephant-hide back.

It's interesting to have the words of one Alexander Wellington Purdy to describe our Bleasdale Boulder.

In the novel A Splinter in the Heart ('loosely based' on Al's own life), the adolescent hero Patrick, on one of his long-distance runs, visits with his Uncle Wilfred.

"You hearda the Glen Miller Rock, boy?
folks still come to look at it...and marvel
Patrick shook his head.
"Tarnation big rock. Folks come down from Toronto to look at it. I hear tell they measured it, chipped at it with hammers, took pieces away with 'em. They made a great fuss about it."
"Why did they do that, Uncle Wilfred?"
"Seems like that rock's been there near as long as God made the earth. Old Rentee Burling told me what they said about it. It was glaciers did it!"

(page 61, A Splinter in the Heart, paperback edition)

And there's a poem too
but for now it's escaped me.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Reading List

This photo was taken in the beautiful Al Purdy Library at Trenton High School. I have yet to do justice to the people and the place.

For today, I am thinking about this quote, which was selected for the library wall:

"I searched out chinks of reality in the high walls around me and found perilous escape in books."

The lines are taken from a poem called What it Was-
in which Al Purdy describes his time in schools, including a boarding school we all know as Albert College.
A working class kid, accustomed to wandering the mean streets of Trenton, smothered by the love of a mother who had only him, he speaks of "how cruelly alien boys were" and of his escape into books...and listening.

This man who found school oppressive and irrelevant, and who dropped out in Grade 10, went on to read widely, to collect thousands of books and to fill a vast oeuvre with his discoveries from classical literature, archaeology, the wider world.

So in a way have I, retired from a challenging career with high walls of its own, entered into a new exciting stage of life, in books. I am following all the threads in Purdy's work - other poets, critics, novelists, contemporaries and successors in Canadian letters.
After years of technical writing and reading, I am once again reading... poetry.

More from What it Was-

" It was not exactly the inequalities
of schoolboy against bullying teacher
or later the fear fitting into a 
strange conformity at a boarding school 
or how cruelly alien boys were
-for at the time I searched out chinks
of reality in the high walls around
me and found perilous escape in books with 
night flights west and sky causeways-"

(from the Cariboo Horses, 1965)